Relationships and friendships that are formed online were one of the great taboos of the early internet era. Whether it was the creeps that lurked in murky chatrooms, or the undateables that populated online matchmaking services, the act of connecting with a stranger online was shrouded in shame and discomfort.
How times have changed. Today, 57% of teens have made new friends online, and only 20% have met one of those friends in person – suggesting that making friends that you never intend to meet face-to-face is also increasingly acceptable.  And in 2011, 10% of people had made or believed they’d meet friends online – not just teens, but people of all ages.  Against this backdrop, a growing number of online spaces are facilitating online friendships. And Girls’ Night In, a private Facebook group for a select group of LA-based women, is a compelling example – a sorority for the digital age.
If Girls’ Night In held an IRL party, any internet-savvy person would be clamouring to get in. Its Facebook-based ranks are populated by more than 1,500 women in LA – predominantly in their 20s and 30s – who are united by the fact they’re cool, hot and highly sociable. Here, Instagram stars, make-up artists and socialites whisper and giggle between themselves. Whether you want to know if your botox looks too fake, wonder if Scientology would be right for you, or want a second opinion on whether or not this screenshot from your boyfriend’s phone means he’s cheating on you, the girls in the group are ready and waiting to give their opinion. 
Getting in isn’t easy. It requires the referral of three existing members, and it strictly prohibits sharing anything outside the group. “EVERYTHING POSTED IN THIS GROUP IS PRIVATE, TOP SECRET AND SHOULD REMAIN IN THIS GROUP,” read the rules. “SHARING INFO OR POSTS FROM THIS GROUP WITH OTHERS WILL RESULT IN EXPULSION FROM THE GROUP AND PUBLIC SHAMING.” Even the name is hidden from the public eye. Girls’ Night In is a pseudonym; its real name is ever-changing in accordance with running in-jokes, further adding to its mystery. 
It’s friendship on demand. If one person isn’t around to give you a virtual hug, inevitably someone else will beKristen V. Brown, journalist
And perhaps it’s this mystery, combined with its exclusivity, that’s forged such a deep emotional connection between members. "From politics to periods, racism to relationship questions, and classism to car advice, this group provides a wealth of compassionate, learned, and intersectional information that helps us better ourselves and the world around each of us," says GNI member Eugenie Grey. The insinuation that the group improves your life is unanimous among members; “I cannot imagine my life without this group,” says another. 
The sense of camaraderie between these women is real. And while its gleaming LA context may make it seem a little unreal, it’s reflective of a behaviour that’s become commonplace on social platforms. Young mums; One Directioners; London-based hipsters with a penchant for vintage denim – private Facebook groups have become a way for people to forge private spaces online in which they can share common interests with perfect strangers. “It’s friendship on demand,” writes journalist Kristen V. Brown. “If one person isn’t around to give you a virtual hug, inevitably someone else will be.” 
Facebook is still cool if you’re in the know
Jon Gurinsky, Creative Commons (2016) ©
The private spaces that people populate online have become increasingly significant for businesses in recent years. With 59% of all social sharing in the US now occurring in private channels, and 27% of Americans sharing exclusively in these spaces, most peer-to-peer influence over purchase decisions happens in private. 
But Girls’ Night In is telling of how this behaviour is evolving. With 96% of women seeking advice from others before buying, while one-on-one chatting might edge someone towards or away from a purchase, a group of 1,500 women has far greater influence.  Anecdotes even suggest these women have the ability to influence who other members date. “One genius member was concerned for her guy friend who had bad luck trying to find down-to-earth girls in LA,” writes journalist Jensen Karp, “so she turned to her secret society to change that.” 
In recent years, Facebook has struggled to fend off rumours that it’s lost its edge – that the cool kids don’t hang out there anymore. But groups like Girls’ Night In suggest that plenty of young, interesting people still use it. They’re simply retreating to spaces that are less public to do so. Since Facebook launched Groups in 2010 – along with the option to make them private – all kinds of close-knit communities have been formed on the platform.
Secrets are the bread and butter of female friendships
Antoine K, Creative Commons (2016) ©
Wavey Garms is another private group, where stylish Londoners can sell second-hand designer clothes in an exclusive space, and groups like Nihilist Memes and Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash – while not private – have become internet-y meme breeding grounds that were previously born exclusively on platforms like Reddit or 4chan.
Journalist Hudson Hongo refers to these communities as part of ‘Weird Facebook’. “The ‘Weird’ version of any social network is the one in which its tools are pushed past the bounds of their intended purposes,” he writes.  Because social platforms are, of course, only as much as the people who fill them. Instagram has been turned into a glossy magazine for celebrity-obsessed teens and a self-help column for African women in need by users The Shade Room and Fatibolady respectively. Neither of these uses were what the platform was created for, but the requirements of its users have shaped its purpose.
Girls’ Night in caters to women seeking the support of other women – something that research has proven women are hardwired to seek out, especially in times of stress.  “For girls and women, talk is the glue that holds the relationship together,” says Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. “And it’s often personal talk and secrets. It’s all in the name; ‘Girls’ Night In’ conjures an image of women huddling, whispering and giggling.” 
Online, stranger danger doesn’t mean what it once did
John Benson, Creative Commons (2016) ©
Insights and opportunities
People are social creatures, and a huge amount of time we spend online is spent socialising. The average social media user logs more than an hour and a half on social platforms daily – which is 28% of all online activity – and while 86% of internet users have taken steps to remove or mask their digital footprints, oversharing is rife online.  Girls’ Night In, and other groups like it, simply give people a safe space in which to overshare.
Because 60% of adults and teens say people divulge too much personal information online – but it doesn’t stop them doing it themselves. In turn, people are finding spaces in which they can be themselves, without the world judging them. “Not everything should be public,” writes journalist Megan Garber. “Not everything should be Google-crawlable. Users recognise this; companies – the ones that are building the infrastructures people rely on to communicate with each other – can be slower to see it.”  It’s the same reason teens’ create ‘Finstagram’ accounts (Instagram accounts only their closest friends can see), and it’s why social platforms exclusively for new mothers – like Hello Mamas – exist.
At a time when 80% of teens say they check their phones hourly, and 40% of Gen Yers feel losing their phone would be worse than having their car stolen, being ‘always on’ is often affiliated with heightened pressure and stress from friendships.  “Friends keep in touch more often, with many friends speaking every day," says Tannen. "But all of this constant communication is also fragmenting and exhausting." 
The ways in which friendships are formed and nurtured is changing. People recognise that they can develop deep, meaningful connections with others that they've never met, and may never meetHelen Oxley, consultant clinical psychologist
But while everybody feels stressed by the pressure they receive from their friends, many have also grown accustomed to the validation attached to endless notifications themselves. “We’ve all probably felt the disappointment of texting your bestie with something urgent and then not hearing back for hours,” writes Brown. “But in Girls’ Night In, the expectation of connection is always fulfilled. Perhaps, in our connected culture, all of us need 1,500 best friends.” 
As a requirement for constant connection grows, the stigma attached to befriending strangers will continue to decrease. And as discrimination against minorities decreases, while acceptance of our status as ‘humans’ rather than ‘nationals’ grows – 51% of people now see themselves as global citizens – connecting with people we’ve never met, but who we recognise are people, too, makes perfect sense.  "The ways in which friendships are formed and nurtured is changing,” says consultant clinical psychologist Helen Oxley. “People recognise that they can develop deep, meaningful connections with others that they've never met, and may never meet.” 
Lore Oxford is Canvas8's deputy editor. She previously ran her own science and technology publication and was a columnist for Dazed and Confused. When she’s not busy analysing human behaviour, she can be found defending anything from selfie culture to the Kardashians from contemporary culture snobs.
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